Editors' pick

Johnny Meister and the Stitch

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Editorial Review

Solas Nua's 'Johnny Meister and the Stitch': Wasted lives well worth your time

By Peter Marks
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Two feral Belfast ruffians. One mighty fine production.

Or so the ad might justifiably read for "Johnny Meister and the Stitch," Rosemary Jenkinson's bruising account of the havoc wreaked by a pair of feckless young men headed for their own violent collision. Anchored by the bracingly convincing performances of the two actors -- supercharged Chris Dinolfo and combustible Rex Daugherty -- the play is a graphic, oddly poetic portrait of waste.

The evening comes courtesy of Solas Nua, a Washington company that showcases contemporary Irish theater and other art forms. As it has with such writers as Enda Walsh ("Disco Pigs," "Bedbound") and Owen McCafferty ("Scenes From the Big Picture"), Solas Nua here presents further evidence of why, across the length of the island, Ireland is talent central these days for supple, literary conjurers for the stage.

In style and substance, "Johnny Meister and the Stitch" owes debts to those two star Irish playwrights, Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh. As in McPherson works like "The Weir," Jenkinson's characters confide in us through monologue, the multiple arias ultimately informing the thrust of a larger story. And like McDonagh's catalogue of wild acts, in such plays as "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," this playwright demonstrates an entertaining predilection for the callously profane and the brutal.

Jenkinson's vision is executed with spare and witty precision by director Des Kennedy, who several years ago turned the patchwork portrait of Belfast in "Scenes From the Big Picture" into one of the decade's best ensemble pieces. This time, working in the bare confines of Flashpoint's Mead Theatre Lab on G Street NW, Kennedy has a script of much more limited scale. And yet "Johnny Meister" feels like an estimable statement, a large mirror on the delusions of testosterone-fueled youth and the everyday tragedies set off by a life of bravado tinged with hopelessness.

Its late-adolescent variety of male energy gives the play its insouciant strength, and so it requires of its actors explosive intensity. (One might wish -- for their sakes as well as ours -- that the Mead's air-conditioning system could operate with as much commitment as they do.) Dinolfo, appearing first as Johnny, brings his own athletic heat to the stage. After intermission, it's Daugherty's cooler, more introspective turn as the Stitch -- a nickname conferred for its surgical connotations -- that completes the elaborate prologue to a startling confrontation.

"Johnny Meister and the Stitch" recounts a typically ugly day in two empty existences whose only virtue, it seems, is the ability to sketch out the contours of their aimlessness. That they're both eloquent narrators proves to be their one shared, redemptive trait. Bathed in harsh showers of fluorescent light, each man unfolds a funny and shocking tale of a reckoning to come: Johnny is on the run from the Stitch, worried about payback for some petty slight; the Stitch, meanwhile, is awaiting his own appointment with another brand of terrifying street justice.

The appeal of their stories is all in the writerly details; what they evince thanks to the playwright, a short-story writer, is the sense that they are members of some guild for rough-hewn poets. (In the end, "Johnny Meister" is more about what binds the young men together than what sets them apart.) In his tawdry, street-corner tryst with a heavyset girl from Stitch's life, Dinolfo's Johnny displays a knack for evocative sensual imagery; Daugherty's Stitch paints an artfully rancid picture of his own encounter with a woman from Johnny's intimate circle.

Kennedy ensures that each of the monologues is embroidered by an urgent choreography: The restless, wary men are constantly in motion, as if their survival depended on remaining moving targets. In their scaldingly rendered throwaway world, they prove to be the ultimate disposables.

By Rosemary Jenkinson. Directed by Des Kennedy. Costumes, Lynly Saunders; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sound, Matt Otto. About 1 hour 40 minutes.